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Groups help teens ‘aging out’ of foster care

Groups help teens ‘aging out’ of foster care

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Groups help teens ‘aging out’ of foster care

By Larry Macke | April 9, 2010 {1163}

For most young adults in the United States, the age of 18 holds a certain degree of magic. In a sense, the doors to adulthood finally swing open, with the arrival of some long-awaited privileges.

For others, however, the passage turns out to be bittersweet, and often much more bitter than sweet.

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In Florida, as in most states, 18 is the age at which young adults in foster care “age out” of the system. The young adults don’t always see this as a bad thing; many have the foolhardy confidence that often comes with being 18. But the numbers hold a more sobering reality.

According to a 2008 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, more than half of young adults aging out of foster care experience homelessness or unstable housing, and nearly 30 percent become incarcerated. A full quarter do not have a high school diploma or GED, and less than 2 percent complete a college education. A third suffer from mental health problems or developmental disabilities.

Foster care is the safety net for children who are unable to live with their birth parents due to neglect or abuse. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 9,000-10,000 children enter the system every year, with more than 1,200 aging out, and the numbers are steadily rising. The department does offer some additional assistance to young adults 18 to 23, but beneficiaries must choose to participate in an independent living program, which provides stipends, based on need, to those attending school, those with a plan to achieve independence and on emergency bases.

United Methodist churches and organizations are working to provide support to this vulnerable population, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Finding solutions

The Florida United Methodist Children’s Home just north of Orlando, which has been serving children and families for more than 100 years, is in the midst of expanding its support for young adults facing the end of their foster care years. The focus is on preparing them for what lies ahead.

“Most of our population is 15 and above, and we have 23 residents that are turning 18 this year,” said Dr. Debra Suto-Henry, director of independent living at the Children’s Home. “Our CEO saw the importance of spending more time and energy on independent living.”

The program offers career development opportunities that include apprenticeships in automotive technology, construction technology and early childhood education, and the Home is looking at developing a salon to provide education in cosmetology. There is a driver’s education teacher on campus, and young adults fulfilling their academic obligations are required to hold a job and save 75 percent of their money. One of the newer programs is aimed at enhancing emotional intelligence through group discussions that focus on everyday situations, such as how to handle a supervisor providing negative feedback.

“Research says that most American parents don’t expect their children to be fully independent until age 26, and yet the state says that when you’re 18, you’re an adult,” Suto-Henry said. “Science backs the parents up because the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, isn’t fully developed until age 25.”

The Children’s Home also plans to enhance its services by applying for grants and foundation funding. Leaders of the independent living program hope to one day purchase area apartments to help foster children who age out of the system.

Today, however, the number of young adults in Florida needing help far outstrips the capacity of organizations like the Children’s Home, which has a greater store of resources from which to draw upon than most organizations. Other groups typically don’t have a feeder system to keep their programs populated or paid staff to provide full-time effort. To say that they run primarily on faith is no understatement.

Recognizing the need, taking first steps

Sometimes the best-planned and best-intentioned programs struggle.

In February 2009, Bob Stolz and other members of Palm Harbor United Methodist Church started a program aimed at young men aged 18-22 called Young Men’s Community. The idea grew out of Stolz’s three years of weekly visits to Mandala, a Pasco County facility of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice serving moderate risk males aged 14-18. He first went to visit the son of a fellow congregant, and has felt the pull to return ever since.

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“I walked through the day room,” he said, “and I wondered, ‘What could it possibly have been to bring these men to this point in their lives?’ I wanted to take that experience and create a program that could maybe help guys before they got to that point.”

After nearly two years in development, Young Men’s Community debuted with a Web site ( and a schedule of programming modeled after the church’s youth group evenings that included food, discussion, fellowship, a guest speaker or presentation, and prayer. Stolz recruited men from the congregation, including one who participates in a motorcycle ministry and another who had a career in the FBI, to share their stories.

After four months, the Young Men’s Community was put on hold. The problem: recruitment. The program was aimed at all young men, not just those aging out of foster care, but populating the program proved too much of a challenge. Stolz had developed a coalition of community organizations that included the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, but found that organizations supported by public funding faced restrictions on referrals to faith-based programs.

Nevertheless, he remains hopeful the program’s intent will be realized.

“The need is still there, without question. There are men out there now who almost literally are wondering about what to do next,” he says. “I could get a group back together rather quickly to implement it again. I believe that we did our homework well, but drawing them in turned out to be the obstacle. How does an adult know that he needs Christ without having met him before?”

More information about the Children’s Home and its ministries, including adopting a child or becoming a foster parent, is available at Those who would like to learn more about the Palm Harbor Church ministry may contact Stolz at

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News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Macke is a freelance writer based in Vero Beach, Fla.